Waking the Dead: The Complete Series One & Pilot Episode Review

To coincide with the DVD release of Series 2 of Waking the Dead, Michael Mackenzie has reviewed last year’s DVD release of Series 1 of the engaging detective series, which also includes the show’s two-part pilot episode.

Before there was CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, there was Waking the Dead. Beating the premiere of the American forensic investigation phenomenon by just under a month, this BBC series works to a similar, if slightly less flashy, framework. The action centres around a London-based “Cold Case” squad, a small and elite team tasked to crack cases that have either never been solved or whose results have been called into dispute. The unit is led by DCI Peter Boyd (Trevor Eve), a brilliant but hot-tempered and often irrational man who gets results through any means necessary. Joining him are criminal profiler Dr. Grace Foley (Sue Johnston), pathologist Dr. Frankie Wharton (Holly Aird), and detectives DS Spencer “Spence” Jordan (Wil Johnson) and DC Amelia “Mel” Silver (Claire Goose). Over the course of this first series, the team struggle to find their feet as they are faced with impossible demands for quick results in a business that often takes a very long time indeed.

The brainchild of former Casualty writer Barbara Machin, Waking the Dead‘s concept is, at least in theory, an excellent one. It is a commonly known fact that, all too often, criminal cases are not solved and are instead filed away after all the possibilities have been exhausted. What better opportunity, then, to create a show around such instances, making use of the newly emerging advanced forensic techniques and psychological profiling. Drawing on the past also affords the series an excellent opportunity to investigate crimes committed in a multitude of different time periods instead of being restricted to contemporary cases (or, in the case of more recent series like Foyle’s War and Life on Mars, period pieces).

In practice, though, Waking the Dead is not really all that different from other detective shows. That’s not to say that it isn’t a very good series – indeed, it is at times brilliant – but for the most part the mysteries unfold in a very conventional manner: Boyd and his team take on a case, they pour over the evidence and round up the various people involved, an obvious suspect materialises but is quickly cleared, and from then on it’s business as unsual until an unexpected breakthrough reveals the real culprit. If you’ve seen pretty much any detective series produced in the last couple of decades, you pretty much know the drill. Furthermore, by concentrating on every aspect of each case, the show covers a wide range of different fields of investigation but never really goes into much detail. It has elements of the forensic science of Silent Witness, the psychological profiling of Millenium, and, when all else fails, the good oldfashioned door-to-dooring of something like A Touch of Frost, but those looking for a standard theme will not find one beyond the common fact that all the cases portrayed are at least a few years old.

None of this is necessarily a problem, however, provided you’re not looking for anything too groundbreaking. At its best, Waking the Dead is a suspenseful and compelling show that keeps the viewer guessing as to the end result, while all the time riveted by the intense characterisation. (At its worst, it’s either by the numbers or unneccessarily confusing, usually depending on how ambitious each episode’s mystery is.) The lynchpin the holds it all together is the character of Boyd, a man who clearly has a screw loose somewhere and at times seems barely fit to hold down such a crucial job. Continually breaking the rules to get a result (not always the right one), intimidating suspects and screaming at his underlings, the character is brilliantly portrayed by Trevor Eve, who infuses him with all manner of quirks and idiosyncrasies which serve to make him seem human. The rest of the core cast seem equally real, with Sue Johnston’s portrayal of Grace being completely different from her appearances in The Royle Family, while Holly Aird and Claire Goose also impress as the no-nonsense Frankie and eager rookie Mel respectively. Of the five main characters, only Wil Johnson’s Spence seems, at this stage, to be ill-defined, although he would end up being better developed in later series.

It is these characters, and the interaction between them, that make the series compelling even when the case they are involved with is less than thrilling. The series has an unusually realistic pattern of dialogue, with the speech of multiple characters frequently overlapping and always possessing a level of energy that marks it apart from most shows of its type. The Cold Case squad may be a team that, in the first series, was only recently formed, but even in the pilot episode they interact like old acquaintances who know every aspect of each others’ quirks and foibles. Boyd and Grace serve as the parental figures of this “family”, frequently quarrelling but possessing a level of mutual respect for each other and frequently relying on each other when the going gets tough. In stark contrast to, say, Inspector Morse, where the lead character’s home life (such as it was) would often be explored, it is rare to see what lives Waking the Dead‘s quintet lead outside of the office. We know, for example, that Boyd is divorced, and haunted by the disappearance of his teenage son, but we see no extended shots of him grieving in an empty apartment (in fact, we don’t see any of the characters’ homes, at least in the first series), and we have no idea what Grace, Frankie, Spence or Mel get up to after office hours. It’s what we don’t see that makes these characters so compelling, and the various quick glances and unfinished sentences leave us eager to get to know them intimately – a wish that the writers wisely refuse to grant.

Of the five two-part episodes included in this 5-disc box set, the highlight is undoubtedly the pilot. Released a year before the series proper began, certain discrepancies – Boyd and his wife are still together, and their son is a baby rather than a teenager; Mel’s surname is Silverman rather than Silver; not to mention the differently styled titles and music – prevent it from gelling properly with the episodes that followed, but it remains a gripping two-hour story that establishes all of the series’ hallmarks and also stands on its own as a self-contained narrative. Waking the Dead might have considerably less originality to offer than its intriguing premise would suggest, but it is executed with panache and remains engaging, thanks to its characters, even when the plots suffer a little.

DVD Presentation

Spread across five discs (one for each two-part episode), Waking the Dead looks generally good – better than the original TV broadcasts – but has a softness to it that at times borders on outright blurriness. It’s inconsistent, though, and some shots are noticeably sharper than others, so the fault may lie in the photography itself rather than the DVDs. With just under two hours of material on each disc, compression artefacts are thankfully kept in check, and clarity is generally spot on, although the first series was shot in a decidedly desaturated manner that at times results in rather murky shadow detail.

The audio is vanilla Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, the same as the original broadcasts, and it’s generally fine without being outstanding. Dialogue is always clear, and the music of the pounding theme tune comes across very well. It’s nothing flashy, but it serves its purpose. Optional English subtitles are provided, which are clear, accurate, and well placed in the frame.

There are no extras. This is very much a bare-bones release in every way, even extending to the menus, which are completely static and devoid of transitions – although this latter point is probably something to be celebrated rather than criticised.

Michael Mackenzie

Updated: Jun 26, 2006

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